How to Choose a WordPress Theme: Free vs Commercial

This is part two of a three part series exploring WordPress themes. Last time, we defined what a WordPress theme is and today, we’re going to talk about how to choose a WordPress theme.

We’re not going to talk about specific categories or styles of themes, like business themes versus photography or blog themes. Instead, we’ll go over free themes and commercial themes and discuss why one might work better for you than the other.

Free themes seem obvious. They’re free to use, open to the public, and you pay nothing. :) WordPress’s Twenty Twelve and soon to be released Twenty Thirteen themes are both free.  Most free WordPress themes are also issued under the Free Software GNU General Public License (GPL for short). For more information on what the GPL means to you, check out Eric’s Newbie’s Guide to the GPL.

Commercial themes are also what they sound like. In order to download the theme and install it on your site, you have to purchase a license first. This license might be for the lifetime of your site, or one that you need to renew periodically to continue receiving ongoing support and updates.

Custom themes, by their nature, aren’t on the open market for you to Google Search and download. They’re usually specially designed for one website and they’re almost never free. ;) But we’ll talk about custom themes in the next post.

The difference between free and commercial WordPress themes Themes Directory Themes Directory

Free WordPress Themes

It’s hard to come up with a con for free themes, especially if you’re new to WordPress and just starting out. Free themes lure you with their $0 price tag, and they let you change the look of your site as many times as you want without much overhead.

You may want to try on a few themes before you decide on one that works best for your website. And there are some very good free themes out there.

Free themes are best to use when you’re just starting out with WordPress and want to familiarize yourself with the software, features, and themes available. If you’re just starting a personal blog, for example, a free theme might be a great start.

A word of warning when shopping for free themes:

When hunting for free themes, please, for the love of god, don’t rely on Google alone. Don’t trust Yahoo, or Bing, or any other search engine for that matter. Start by going to the WordPress Theme Directory and browsing the themes they have available.

Finding quality free themes

The themes available on are actually vetted by the WordPress Theme Review Team before being made available in the directory. These themes are clean, safe, NON VIRUS FILLED themes that are thoroughly checked against the rather rigorous WordPress theme standards.

While other places that distribute free themes might also have clean files, it doesn’t mean that all themes that pass through them are vetted as thoroughly before they’re showcased on their website. And that means that there’s potential for security vulnerabilities, malware, and poor programming.

If you’re unsure of the quality of a free theme, you might want to do a bit of research on the developer(s) to see what you can learn and find a trusted friend or developer that you can bribe* or pay to review your theme before using it on your site.

* Developers tend to like coffee and bacon.

Commercial WordPress Themes

Theme Foundry Home Page
Theme Foundry Home Page

Commercial WordPress themes, or premium themes, in general, should be safer, since the vendors rely on happy customers to buy their themes.

Theme Quality

Theme houses that sell premium themes are usually of higher quality, better functionality overall, and tend to also not have malware or spam links to Russian brides. :) But again, do your due diligence in researching the developer or use a reputable theme house like WooThemes, The Theme Foundry or ithemes.

Some theme vendors do not have a stringent vetting process for their themes, and may allow anyone that pays to play. We tend to avoid marketplaces like Theme Forest because, while they definitely offer some good, solid themes, not all the themes are up to coding standards and some mix in a lot of functionality that we believe should be handled by WordPress plugins.

Theme Customization & Support

While commercial themes are usually more professional, have more abilities for customization (such as color, layout, and functionality), and should be safer to use, the main reason you’d want to pick a commercial theme over a free theme is support.

Commercial themes, because they are accepting your money, are usually better supported than free themes. Companies that make a living from producing commercial themes will do their best to maintain their product and make sure it’s safe, updated, and supported. Because you are paying, you can ask them questions when things aren’t working properly and actually get an answer.

Theme Foundry Theme Benefits
Benefits included with your Theme Foundry theme purchase.

While many free themes are well-supported, you must realize a free theme developer’s entire time isn’t spent on maintaining the theme. Especially when it’s free. If you have a question, the developer will try to answer, but it’s not a guarantee. Just because they give away the theme doesn’t mean they’re obligated to support it.

Premium Theme Costs

Quality premium commercial themes tend to cost $60 to $90 per theme with varying license agreements and packages. For example, The Theme Foundry lets you use your newly purchased theme on an unlimited number of sites while giving you 25% off your next Theme Foundry purchase.

Each theme house’s plans and pricing vary, so please look at their packages closely and see what suits you the most. Many offer subscription plans where you can pay a monthly or annual fee and have access to all of their themes.

Which WordPress theme should you choose?

You might want to start with a free theme to just see what’s available. Getting a taste for what works for you and your site and what doesn’t, will help guide your future choices in picking out a premium theme to purchase, for example, if that’s the route you want to go.

What are your website goals?

But in the end, which WordPress theme you choose depends on your goals. Do you just want something simple for your personal or hobby blog? You might want a free theme from Are you running a small business and want a little more of a customized look? You might want to invest in a premium theme where you know the support system is vibrant and active and that the theme developers have been professionally maintaining the theme for a long time.

Custom theme, anyone?

Now, if you want your theme to look a VERY SPECIFIC WAY and none of the themes you find on the open market seem to do it for you, then it might be time to find a developer that can create a custom theme for you. While many themes are loaded with features that allow you to customize many aspects of your site, it doesn’t necessarily mean the theme gives you the power to do ANYTHING with your site.

4 Easy Steps to Picking a Quality WordPress Theme

It doesn’t matter if you’re picking out a free or commercial theme, just keep the following guidelines in mind to ensure that your theme is of the highest quality.

  1. Don’t just rely on search engines to find themes. Remember, search engines return only relevant, popular results and cannot vet if a theme file has spam links or is up to WordPress coding standards. (To learn more about a what can potentially be injected in a free WordPress theme, read Siobhan’s great analysis on the top 10 Google results for free themes).
  2. For quality, free themes, start at the WordPress Theme Directory. For commercial themes, please shop from a reputable theme house.
  3. Research the developers themselves and see if they’re involved in the WordPress community and if they have an active support forum.
  4. Bribe a trusted tech friend or developer to review your theme before installing it on your website.
In our final post in this series, we’ll explore Commercial (Premium themes) versus Custom WordPress themes. When are you better off with a custom theme than with a premium theme with a lot of customization capabilities?

3 responses to “How to Choose a WordPress Theme: Free vs Commercial”

  1. Betty Perry Avatar
    Betty Perry

    Valuable information! Listen to Eric if you are shopping.
    Take it from me I started with one of those bug-filled Russian themes from Theme Forest. When Theme Forest pulls it off the marketplace you are screwed!!! You are left hanging out to dry! Then when you search Theme Forest for the “right” theme to meet your needs you cannot believe their claims. Many now claim they are “responsive” and indeed they are NOT! I would NEVER use Theme Forest again.

    1. ivycat Avatar

      Ouch, Betty, so sorry to hear you went through such hassle with your theme.

      Personally, I’m not comfy buying themes from a marketplace without a LOT of research because it’s hard to know what you’ll get from many angles including:

      • Code quality – do they follow WP coding standards. Does the theme play nicely in the WP community?
      • Support – if you aren’t a developer, you need help when you hit a wall and need to feel confident you can get that support.
      • Bloat – many themes from different marketplaces are so chock-full o’ features (to make them attractive to end-users) that they actually offer too much. This can manifest in a slow site, clunky interface, security vulnerabilities, or simply features that shouldn’t be tied to your theme, but belong in a plugin instead.
  2. Zebra Themes Avatar
    Zebra Themes

    Nice information provided about free and commercial WordPress themes.